People are getting more eco-conscious now, and thanks to that, we get to have more plastic alternatives. The newer one comes from a University of Sussex student who has taken inspiration from the seas to find a solution to the man-made plastic pollution contaminating the world’s oceans.
Lucy Hughes, a product design student, has invented a bioplastic created from fish skin and scales and red algae. This type of plastic could reduce or significantly limit the amount of non-biodegradable plastic waste that we usually see today.
Dubbed Marinatex, this fully biodegradable and compostable material has been designed so that it could be an eco-friendly alternative to plastic film currently used in a whole host of packaging including sandwich boxes. It can biodegrade in a soil environment in less than a month and you can throw it away to your food waste bin.
Hughes said, “It makes no sense to me that we are using plastic, an incredibly durable material, for products that have a life cycle of less than a day. And I’m not alone, there is a growing community of bioplastic pioneers that are working towards finding alternatives to our dependency on plastic,”
“With Marinatex, we are transforming a waste stream into the main component of a new product. By doing so, we have created a consistent, transparent and ‘plastic-like’ material with a more planet friendly and product appropriate lifecycle for packaging.”
The then fourth-year undergraduate student first developed her idea after she visited the Newhaven-based sustainable fishing company MCB Seafoods Ltd. After she had seen the organic waste material from the fishing industry first-hand, she identified the potential in the material.
The waste is, according to Hughes, reliable and abundant. And when combined with a biopolymer such as red algae created an extremely effective plastic substitute. “Algae bioplastics are becoming more common, but the issue I faced during development was that the sheets I made without the fish waste seemed to revert back into a crinkled seaweed shape,”
“I needed to find a material that would make the formula more consistent. I challenged myself to find a material that was from a local waste stream. My initial experiments involved other types of fish waste such as mussel shells and crustacean skeletons before settling on fish waste. The result was a locally sourced sea-based solution.”
According to a recent study, some bioplastics, such as PLA made from fermented corn starch, have not lived up to claims of being compostable or biodegradable. That study stated that those plastics remain intact after more than three years.
Different from those hard to biodegrade bioplastics, marinatex degrades quickly and is also cheaper to produce and does not require an entirely new recycling scheme for disposal. Moreover, it’s stronger than a standard plastic bag and does not release toxins into the natural environment.
Estimatedly, in the UK only, people use 5m tonnes of plastic every year, nearly half of which is packaging. Only 51% of local authorities in England have separate food waste collections. Even though there are some recycling schemes, the majority of bio and compostable plastics can’t be treated or processed in the existing waste treatment infrastructures.
Meanwhile, there are about 492,020 tonnes of fish waste produced by the fish processing industry in the UK annually. This waste is considered a huge and inefficient waste stream with low commercial value.
Parts of fish such as offal, blood, crustacean and shellfish exoskeletons and fish skin and scales are usually incinerated or worse, they end up in landfills. According to Hughes’ own research that she did on the Sussex coast, she found fish skins and scales were the most promising sources for the plastic alternative, due to their flexibility and strength-enabling proteins.
She found that a single Atlantic cod could generate the organic waste needed for 1,400 bags of marinatex. “Plastic is an amazing material, and as a result we have become too reliant on it as designers and engineers. “It makes no sense to me that we’re using plastic, an incredibly durable material, for products that have a life cycle of less than a day,”
“For me, MarinaTex represents a commitment to material innovation and selection by incorporating sustainable, local and circular values into design. As creators, we should not limit ourselves to designing to just form and function, but rather form, function and footprint,” said Hughes.
Out of those unwanted parts of fish, Hughes decided that she wanted to work with skins and scales. “It began with my desire to work with waste. When I had it in my hands, I realized this has got potential. It’s super strong and flexible and pliable.”
Something new and innovative can’t be achieved with only one trial, that’s for sure. For Hughes, she kept trying to turn fish waste into plastic. She has spent months experimenting that she in total has run more than 100 experiments to find a binder and a process that could hold together the proteins in the fish skins and scales.
She said, “I had a lot of failed attempts—a lot of things either went too brittle or too gooey or somewhat moldy.” Then, she found the red algae and everything took off since.
Future of Marinatex
Hughes hasn’t tested and scaled up her marinatex for business yet. However, she is optimistic that with the right support the product could be ready for the market in little over a year. As mentioned before, Hughes said that the material could be cost-competitive because it can be processed at low temperatures and it starts with waste products instead of oil. This saves more energy when compared to plastic production.
But one thing’s for sure is that Hughes has planned to continue R&D and patent the product as she prepares for manufacturing. She said that she’s had interest from big brands and supermarkets.
What we know now is that many major companies are working on finding alternatives to plastic. More than 400 have signed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment. It’s a pledge that says that any plastic that can’t be eliminated should be recycled, reusable, or compostable, and that recycling, reuse, and composting actually happens in practice.
Hughes realizes that one problem with humanity is behavior change, which can happen, but at an excruciatingly slow rate. Therefore, she believes that eliminating plastic and shifting to reusable packaging or sustainable alternatives should come first. “My main focus is to replace single-use [packaging],” she said.